Uganda: Well-Maintained Roads Crucial for Uganda to Become Middle-Income

2 December 2019

A friend has been holed up in Fort Portal town, for more than a month.

He arrived in the chilly town to set up a base from where he would do work in the neighbouring villages. He is a development expert. His assignment is to assess interventions his clients implemented in the communities deep in this part of western Uganda.

This means holding interviews with community leaders and assessing health facilities in the villages and valleys that form part of the terrain.

The rain has been pounding Uganda for the better part of 2019, destroying a lot of the road infrastructure. In areas like Kakumiro, trucks, which went in to pick maize, are stuck on the roads, cutting off communities.

My friend travels in a high-end 4x4 made for fieldwork that belongs to his clients, but it too gets stuck. Sometimes he simply drives back to his hotel and waits for another day! Yet this should not really be a problem with a proper road maintenance programme.

There is an estimated 140,000km of roads in Uganda valued at about $ 7.7 billion in 2018, which is approximately Shs 28.4 trillion. Each year, the government budgets a paltry Shs 500 billion to maintain them, which is 1.7 per cent of what these roads are worth. Sometimes it is less.

In the last 10 years, the government has spent approximately Shs 3 trillion on road maintenance. Yet in the current financial year, Shs 6.4 trillion was budgeted for the roads and works sector. Most of this money will go into constructing new roads. That is very good, but we need to maintain what we are constructing.

A lot of times, we wait until the road has become completely impassable that we do something, which leads to actually constructing a new one, which I am sure is much more expensive.

The highway between Fort Portal and Kasese is one such road. Kamdin to Lira in the north is deteriorating so badly that I think a new road will have to be constructed soon at a cost many times more than what the government would spend on maintenance.

I think we are waiting for the Kalisoliiso Crew to make so much noise about the Najeera-Kiwatule road before anything is done about it. Easy-to-repair areas eventually turn into gigantic potholes that are expensive to repair. Poorly maintained bridges end up being replaced by more expensive ones, most times after they have completely collapsed.

It is this poor funding that has led my friend to fail to finish his work just because it is a rainy season. It is the reason maize farmers are cursing rain in Kakumiro as they see their harvest go to waste.

It is very ironical for a farmer to curse the rain, which they depend on for better yields. This should not be the case for properly maintained roads. The traffic jam in Kampala, Uganda's most important city, which makes the country lose billions of dollars every year, is mainly a result of poorly maintained roads.

There are very few cars in Uganda but it takes an average of four hours each day during the school academic term for people who work in Kampala to travel from their homes to office and back home after work.

Yet the majority of people who work in Kampala live within a radius of just 20km. Clogged drainage systems lead to flooding and make the city inaccessible whenever there is a little drizzle. These are problems that can be easily solved by providing adequate and timely funding for road maintenance.

A well-designed and timely road maintenance programme inhibits the impact of deterioration agents (traffic and water) and prolongs road life. Road users, in turn, derive experience from a road in a good or bad condition.

Uganda's economy depends on road transport as there is no railway or air transport to talk about. So, well-maintained roads will make Uganda achieve its middle-income dreams faster. Coffee growers and dealers would be able to achieve the target of 20 million bags a year faster than when roads are impassable.

The writer is a communication and visibility consultant.

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